The three albums that Nick Drake produced in his short lifetime are all near-perfect, haunting gems of beauty and brevity – but haven't Nick Drake fans long craved an over-long album of hissy demos where Nick Drake's Mum gets to sing?
Because, make no mistake, that's what Family Tree is – a 23-track slog of home-recorded demos that Nick Drake doodled out before the release of his first album. Family Tree could almost be the dictionary definition of hit and miss, but for anyone who wants to listen to the gradual solidification of a rare songwriting talent, Family Tree is a fascinating, damn near essential album.
It's a cliche to say that Nick Drake was chronically under-appreciated during his lifetime, but only because it couldn't be truer. Between 1969 and 1972 Nick Drake released three hushed, crystalline albums to a staggeringly uncaring world. We know how the story ends – Nick Drake kills himself, only to become such an influential musician that Brad Pitt narrated a documentary about him three years go – but where does the story begin?
Thanks to Family Tree, we can see that a lot of it had to do with a year spent in Aix-En-Provence. Prior to this Nick Drake had been exploring his talents relatively slowly, but Aix-En-Provence marked an explosion in Drake's musical development – and it's this year, prior to the recording of Five Leaves Left, that Family Tree documents so impressively.
Heavy on covers – by obvious inspirations such as Bob Dylan and Bert Jansch – and traditional songs, Family Tree at once offers an insight about how Nick Drake found his sound and also provides fascinating little insights into the man who provokes so much fervent devotion, like the snatch of Mozart where Drake plays clarinet with his aunt and uncle or the weird Mexican impression that he uses to introduce Milk And Honey.
Obviously at 28 tracks long – and since Family Tree paints a picture of an embryonic talent – there are moments that are eminently skippable; like the spoken-word Time Piece and Poor Mum, a song by Nick Drake's mother which shows where Nick Drake got his voice, his musicianship and possibly his all-encompassing miserablism. But, these aside, Family Tree is a treat for Nick Drake completists and the casual curious alike.